It is 3am, pitch dark, and I am standing in the middle of Twickenham rugby stadium pouring out weed-killer onto the grass with shaking hands.
In my last year at university the British rugby authorities saw fit to invite the Springboks over to play a series of matches. At that time South Africa was still firmly in the grip of apartheid, and South Africa was a pariah on the world stage. So for a South African rugby team to be allowed to tour was viewed by myself and several friends as a very bad idea.
We decided to make a protest, by buying the best weed-killer we could find, and pouring it onto the Twickenham pitch a few days before the international match between England and South Africa was due to be played. This was a big decision for us, as if we were caught we would almost certainly be sent down from university, as well as being prosecuted. Several times I thought of backing out, but somehow a mixture of conscience and cajoling ensured that I didn’t.
So I found myself with four comrades in the depths of suburban Twickenham at dead of night. The previous night we had done a trial run, climbing over the main gate empty-handed, and going out onto the pitch. Nothing had happened, so now we were back, armed with large plastic cans of weed-killer to do the deed.
Once again we climbed over the main gate. This time we were more nervous, because if we were caught it would be clear that we were not only trespassing but aiming to do damage. There had been radio reports of police with dogs patrolling the main rugby grounds where the Springboks would play, so as we went down through the terraces and out onto the pitch, we expected any moment to hear the sounds of police whistles and the unleashing of Alsatians. Thus we were too nervous to be silent, hushing one another and telling one another to be quiet in stage whispers.
The old stadium creaked and groaned in the wind, as we made our way into the middle of the arena, feeling dreadfully exposed. We had decided beforehand that we would write a subtle protest message in the grass with the weed-killer, but eventually the need for speed and brevity had reduced us to the motto ‘SA = swastika’. I was responsible for pouring out the ‘A’. Drawing with weed-killer in the pitch dark is quite hard, when each letter needs to be about 25 yards long, but still I did my best.
Eventually we were all done, and we made our way out once again, back over the main gate. That brought us out into an area that was still stadium land, and which could be seen from the road. Thankfully there was a ditch running along by the stadium wall which would give us some cover.
I was the last over the gate, and my feet hit the ground at about the same moment that a car with a blue light on it came prowling along the street in front of me. The others all had time to duck down into the ditch. I had a decision to make. It was quite dark, so I wouldn’t necessarily be spotted if I kept quite still, but I would be exposed. If I jumped down into the ditch I would be under cover, but the movement of getting into the ditch might itself attract attention. What to do? In the end I decided to stay put, freezing in place.
The car with the blue light stopped on the road in front of the gates. My friends in the ditch were frantic, whispering viciously (something I hadn’t thought was possible) at me to get down into the ditch. But I had taken my decision and become motionless. In my mind I was an old tree, leaning against the stadium wall.
Nothing happened. The police car doors didn’t open. My friends lay still in their protective ditch. I continued being a tree. Twenty minutes passed. I felt as if the phrase ‘rooted to the spot’ was starting to come true for me literally. Finally the car drew away and disappeared up the street. I returned from my tree reverie, and my friends scuttled out from their ditch. Soon we were driving triumphant back to London, looking forward to hearing that the game had been called off due to damage to the pitch.
However, to our frustration the news bulletin never came. Our scientist friend who had advised us on the type of weed-killer to use had obviously blundered, for the game went ahead. Any damage to the pitch was obviously able to be repaired in the ensuing few days. So, for better or worse, our protest was a failure, and all our angst in carrying it out had gone for nothing. I had nothing to show for my efforts except a lingering unease whenever I saw a police car at night, and a feeling of increased affinity for trees.